From the University of Rochester Campus Times:
Fishing through a sea of scrap papers on his desk, Nicholas Gresens, a professor in the Department of Religion and Classics, found a torn, graying index card. Its blurred pencil marks read, “sic cum inferiore vivas quemadmodum tecum superiorem velis vivere.”
Roman orator and philosopher Seneca penned the quote in a letter to a friend over 2,000 years ago. Today, it’s one of Gresens’ favorite mottos.
“It’s kind of like, ‘do unto others as you would do unto yourself,’ but it’s stronger,” he said. “That one implies equality, this one implies something deeper. It means, ‘treat even people who are inferior to you as you would treat yourself. Don’t treat slaves as slaves. One day, they’ll be superior to you.’”
Gresens’ ability to piece together a jumble of foreign words, form a coherent phrase and expand its construction into a philosophical concept is rare, but not obsolete.
In the Rochester City School District, two of the 26 secondary schools offer Latin, but the programs are dwindling. Yet, despite education cutbacks and some students’ decisions to discard the language from their schedules, the tongue refuses to die.
That’s because of people like senior Andrew Cirillo. He started learning Latin last spring in preparation for divinity school this coming fall. He also knows Italian, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew, and he wants to study French and German before heading into priesthood.
In Rochester, other students younger than Cirillo are not so fortunate. If they don’t attend the School of the Arts (SOTA) or Joseph C. Wilson Magnet High School Commencement Academy (Wilson) — two of the highest-performing schools in the city — they cannot take Latin.
But even Latin courses at those two schools are nearing elimination.
The drop is due primarily to budget cuts. Several city schools do not have much money to begin with, and they must first address the U.S. Department of Education’s cries to emphasize math and science. Electives such as foreign languages are expensive for schools, and administrators who cut Latin think students will not suffer without it because they believe the language is a mere frill.
Not just Latin, but all foreign languages in the Rochester City School District, are in danger. For the first time since 1989, the community lacks a director of world languages. Principal of Rochester’s newly-founded Young Women’s College Prep Charter School (YWCP) Jennifer Gkourlias held the position a couple of years ago. She attributes the shrinking number of classes to how difficult it is to find certified staff and to the challenge of fitting the subject into students’ schedules.
Some of her students listen to rumors that Latin is not as important or worthy as spoken languages are, furthering its negative reputation by believing it is a luxurious language only geared toward college-bound students. The results: Three-fifths and one-third of the students taking Latin at SOTA and Wilson respectively dropped it last year.
The decline reflects a broader issue: a shift from education for the sake of education toward education for the sake of a job or career. Half a dozen Latin instructors in Rochester agree that administrators cut the language from secondary schools in part because it’s not practical and doesn’t mandate immediate, professional payoff.
“It’s a signal that education has turned from its roots — a tradition that has produced successful inventors, thinkers and statesmen,” Gresens said. “Reforms are fine, changes are fine as new fields of study emerge, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the old, tried and true.”
Administrators are threatening Latin’s existence, but even truer is the language’s resilience. In Rochester, the ancient tongue endures educational cuts because of a small group of passionate scholars. Jill Crooker, a College Board advisor and Latin instructor in her 25th year of teaching, is one of them.
“If the teacher is enthusiastic, you can sustain the program,” Gkourlias said. “Programs live and die with the teachers.”
Gkourlias advocates Latin as the foundation for other foreign languages. She created a curriculum at YWCP in which students take Latin in seventh grade and another foreign language in eighth.
Thanks to Latin scholars like Gkourlias and Gresens, student interest in the subject is on the rise. Gresens had to split Elementary Latin I into two sections last spring and needed to again this spring.
Although many UR students don’t have room in their schedules for Latin as a major or minor — an average of three students have specialized in classics each year for the past ten years — they crave at least a taste of it.
“I think Latin gives students a whole new different way of thinking and discussing language,” Mario Morales ’11 said. “It’s more systematic — inflection-based grammar is so different from the common auxiliary-based systems of English that it forces students to practically develop a whole new brain for it.”
Morales claims to owe his knowledge of Spanish, Ancient Greek, German, Russian and Arabic to the deep understanding of language he acquired through studying Latin.
But what about English? Since various Latin morphemes — small units of meaning — compose English words, the ancient tongue enables students to firmly grasp grammar, develop vocabulary and write concisely.
“Latin taught me to think about nuance, word choice and fluency in a different way,” Morales said. “‘House’ doesn’t feel the same way ‘domicile’ does. ‘Feeling’ and ‘sentiment’ are synonyms, but not the same thing. ‘Art’ and ‘skill’ have entirely different meanings these days… It’s safe to say the way I write now is mostly due to my classicist training.”
Yet classicists are not the only ones who encounter Latin. Do you watch “Jeopardy!” or do crossword puzzles? Ever researched the origin of UR’s motto? Have you read the Bible or seen a spelling bee on TV? If you have, you know what I mean.
It seems as though the language isn’t going anywhere fast, even if teenagers can’t learn Latin in Rochester secondary schools.
“Latin has been around for over 2,000 years, and it will continue,” Crooker said. “That is testimony to its vigor.”
Latin lingers on. (Campus Times)